Mark Bowen lays down a strummed layer of sound with one of his Strats. A regular Fender on Idles’ recordings is a brown-finished 1972 model owned by his father and named Stinky. Photo by Debi Del Grande
The noise and dissonance on Ultra Mono works in a harmonious and cohesive way. That has a lot to do with how you guys use negative space, but are there any other tricks to tying all of the din together to make something musical?
Kiernan: The dissonant and atonal stuff is something Bowen and I have always done and we love working together on. On this album, some of the parts are simpler than things we might have gone for in the past, but they’re much more powerful, and I think that comes from being much more considerate of what each person is playing.
Bowen: “Mr. Motivator” is a good example: Lee makes this “genk” noise that sounds like a hammer in a metal factory, and he plays that along with the drums, and that part really only occupies a frequency range around 1.2k to 2.3k—which is a large bandwidth, but it’s where the transients of the drums and the cymbals sit. That part really pops in that space. For it to not sound like just noise, we stripped everything back so that it was just a guitar part that almost made sense on an acoustic, then slowly added in effects from the sound palette that we’d put together for this album.Adding those sounds in slowly helped us to not overdo it or make things sound like a Hoover or an old dial-up modem. We also wanted to avoid the guitar coming off djenty, so we needed to make sure the amps had enough headroom and that there wasn’t any unnecessary distortion. We actually went straight into the Neve [A646] desk at La Frette a lot because there was enough dissonance baked into some guitar parts that we didn’t need to make it worse by getting caught up with amps and pedals.
So, a dry, direct-to-desk guitar track gave the guitars some body when the effects would get overwhelming?
Bowen: Yeah, that or the Fender Twins. I can’t express how amazing sounding that Neve desk was when we plugged certain guitars into it. I have a new Fender Player Series Strat that I loaded with Red ’79 pickups by the Creamery, from Manchester, U.K., which is a very trebly Strat pickup that sounds like Gang of Four no matter what you’re plugged into. I used that pickup a lot for dry sounds that propelled things forward under the effects. Also, any time there’s chords on the album, they’re played with down-strokes the whole time to really make sure they had that Strokes/Ramones kind of chop. Propulsion was a word we used a lot in the studio.
Kiernan: There’s nothing more choppy or natural sounding than going straight into the desk, and you can really hear the person playing when you record that way, and if you add that in with everything else it tightens up the effected guitars.
Can you guys detail your main amp rigs for the album and any additional amps that made a big impact on the overall sound of the guitars?
Kiernan: The main combination was really my live rig, which is a reissue 100-watt Marshall Super Lead plexi and 100-watt Marshall JCM800 2203 going into two Marshall 2x12 cabs loaded with Eminence Swamp Thang speakers. Then a reissue Fender Twin Reverb. I have the Marshalls running as loud as I can have them and they’re generally quite gainy like that, but my 800 is a master volume model and I dial the gain back a bit on that so I can attack it a bit harder.
Bowen: My core amp setup was my Hiwatt DR103 going into a Hiwatt 4x12 loaded with Celestion Creambacks, and then I used a Sunn Model T that we actually borrowed from the band Sunn O))), and we had that running with everything on 10 going into a Hiwatt 2x15 cab. I also ran a Fender Twin Reverb or this really beautiful Mesa/Boogie Mark II combo, which really took pedals beautifully. That was my main setup, and then we’d jump around through a couple of different amps for the trashier, more garage-y songs—usually this really beat up ’70s Fender Princeton Reverb.
Could you tell me about the main guitars that really played the hero role on Ultra Mono?
Bowen: My Electrical Guitar Company EGC 500 was the one. That guitar has just changed the game for me. It’s got an acrylic body and aluminum neck, and it’s everything that I want out of a guitar. It’s so much louder than other guitars, and there’s this resonance to it that really fits in with my ethos and songwriting. It sounds like an angry piano. That guitar is capable of really horrible caustic sounds, but immediately switches over to making these weighty, thuddy doom-metal sounds.
Lee: I basically used a Fender Tele with just a bridge pickup wired straight to the volume pot for most of what I did. Most of my Teles or Esquires are loaded with various Bare Knuckle pickups. They’re pretty much all regular single-coils. Humbuckers tend to be too bulky and aggressive for what I do, and tend to get too thick sounding when run through all of the effects. And I like my dry tone to be thinner and kind of harsher.
What pedals were really integral to Ultra Mono’s sound palette? Are you guys doing anything weird with your switching or effects routing or running your amps in stereo?
Kiernan: When we record, it’s our live boards and done in a way that translates easily to playing these songs live. If we’re doing overdubs, then we’ll swap things out to find something that’ll hit the mark better. All of the effects go to my Marshalls and, on the record, the Twin just got a Boss Blues Driver to push it a bit, but it was very clean and punchy. The idea was that the Twin gave me that rhythmic chop like you hear on the chorus of “Reigns” and the chorus on “Mr. Motivator.” I also used a ’70s Peavey Pacer for that same kind of clear rhythmic chop. Solid-state amps just have so much less fizz and their clean tone can be so sharp. The pedals that I used most were the Death By Audio Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe for pretty much every fuzz sound, and that was always paired with an EarthQuaker Devices Arrows boost to push it over the edge. That can be heard on “Reigns,” for the feedback in the verse, my solo on “War,” the outro on “Anxiety,” and pretty much anything else that I do on the album that’s really fucked-up sounding. The EarthQuaker Arrows and Tone Job were used together on pretty much anything that is calmer sounding, but wasn’t done straight-to-desk. I also used a Stamme[n] by drolo, which is this absolutely insane pedal company from Belgium. The Stamme[n] makes some of the weirdest, most fucked-up noises by latching onto notes and then basically tearing the frequencies apart for really weird electronic sounds, and I used that for the pulsating overdub on “The Lover.”
Bowen: The pitch-shifting delay on “Grounds” is the Red Panda Raster, and that riff is really just one note through that pedal. That pedal does the octave down you hear on the first half of “Grounds,” and I switch it to the octave-up function for the second half. That pedal is just really good at making very simple synthesized-sounding tones without being overly 8- or 16-bit sounding, or being overly modulated or sounding like it’s got a ring mod in it. It also doesn’t have a lot of white noise or hiss, but it still makes a sound that just doesn’t normally come out of a guitar. The ZVEX Super Duper and the JHS Haunting Mids were really important for carving space and making sure the amps were cutting, especially on the cleaner-sounding stuff. The Death By Audio Reverberation Machine was used a lot. There’s something amazing about everything Death By Audio makes, in that they really respond to how much you’re digging in when you’re playing. The ZVEX Instant Lo-Fi Junky is another hero pedal. It’s all over [2017’s] Brutalism and Joy as an Act of Resistance,and it was used selectively on Ultra Mono for that nice warble it gets. Sometimes I’d just leave it on for an overdub without even playing anything because it gives this nice warble in the background and adds some crappiness to the overall sound.
Unfortunately, I’m doing all my switching manually, so it’s a lot of jumping around and heel-toe kind of stuff. Routing wise, nothing super unusual. My pedal chain is a little weird in its order, but I send everything to all the amps all the time. My amps are EQ’d in dramatically different ways, with one more focused on bass sounds and one handling brighter tones.